Bush has had the floor on Iraq for over two months now, thanks mainly to a blitzkrieg of speeches that have been given in such quick succession that nothing else---in particular, criticism of the Bush gang's policies---can gain any traction in the media. Never mind that the speeches all say essentially the same thing. Repetition is effective, as long as anybody is listening, and the power of the presidency obligates the press to pay attention. By almost never saying anything new, Bush ensures that every change in or addition to his message, no matter how small, is greeted with the analytic fervor that used to be reserved for the subtle changes in wording by which the Soviet Politburo signalled its intentions. What a way to dominate the news. Always say next to nothing, so the next next-to-nothing you say will be analyzed to death. Here's a couple of examples.
Naval Academy, November 30: Bush spells out his "Plan for Victory" in Iraq. There's nothing new in the plan; it's a rehash of what the Bush gang has been doing all along. What's new is that it's now called a plan, and to make sure you don't miss the point, Bush is fronted by a gigantic banner proclaiming "Plan for Victory" and backed by a checkerboard of smaller signs saying the same thing. During the course of the speech, Bush admits, "Over the past two and a half years, we've faced some setbacks in standing up a capable Iraqi security force---and their performance is still uneven in some areas." There's a frenzy of speculation in the press that this admission signals a new candor on Iraq.
Park Hyatt, Philadelphia, December 12: After another numbing recitation of his strategy for victory, Bush responds to five questions from audience members. In answer to the first, he estimates that "30,000 (Iraqis), more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." The press goes into a tizzy about Bush's coming out of isolation---he took questions from other than a handpicked audience!---and about further candor---he admitted that Iraqis have died since our invasion and even estimated the number!
If you were hoping that the candor would lead to an acknowledgment of at least some of the Bush gang's bungling in Iraq, forget it. The most you'll find in these speeches is that sometimes things haven't gone smoothly or that there have been setbacks. It's all phrased in the language of victimization---first-person pronouns disappear, and bad things just happen---language we all use on occasion and recognize immediately as a ploy to avoid responsibility.
Bracketing the speech blitz like malignant bookends are the Veteran's Day (November 11) speech at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania and the January 10 speech to the VFW at a Washington hotel. The bookends are Bush's quite explicit warnings in these speeches not to criticize him and his administration. Sure, there's a perfunctory lead-in about how criticism is part of our great democratic tradition, and he welcomes it, but this is immediately contradicted by his putting his critics on notice that "irresponsible debate" undermines our troops and their mission in Iraq.
Notice the weighting in his Veterans Day speech: "While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began. ... These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them. Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. And our troops deserve to know that, whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united and we will settle for nothing less than victory."
In the speech to the VFW, Bush put it this way: "It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly---even in times of war. Yet we must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate, and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas. ... When our soldiers hear politicians in Washington question the mission they are risking their lives to accomplish, it hurts their morale."
The message here is unmistakeable: can the criticism, and don't question the mission, or be labelled a traitor to our troops. It's disgusting how the Bush gang shamelessly uses the troops as a prop to burnish the president's image---remember "Mission Accomplished"---and as a shield against criticism.
In addition to blatant attempts to suppress criticism, the blitz speeches do contain the three cornerstones of the Bush gang's current Iraq policy.
Neither part of this justification stands up to scrutiny. It is one thing to note that Islamic extremists dream of establishing a vast Islamic empire and quite another to predicate American policy on the notion that they are close to achieving this dream. Islamic fundamentalism and, more generally, the dysfunction of Islamic civilization that feeds fundamentalism is indeed one of the chief problems of the 21st Century. To exaggerate and misconstrue this threat by conflating it with that of the Axis or the Soviet empire, both of which were based on states with the people, resources, and technology to be a genuine threat to the very existence of the United States, is to prejudice us toward a solely military response and thus to miss the point that Islamic fundamentalism must be beaten back primarily within the Islamic world, by the gradual emergence of ideas and practices that allow its states and peoples to get beyond sterile religious fundamentalism and to build governments and institutions that can succeed in the modern world.
Fascism and communism started as ideas, too, but they achieved virulent expression in states that could and did threaten liberal democracies worldwide. Islamic fundamentalism is nowhere close to that level of threat; for the present and foreseeable future, the main emphasis in fighting it must be on winning the war of ideas in the Islamic world. The frightening thing is that nearly every indicator suggests that we have been losing on this front since our invasion of Iraq.
The second part of the justification, that Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror, though perhaps true, ignores the fact that this development is entirely a consequence of our invasion. The continued disaffection of Sunni elements in Iraq makes the country a magnet and primary recruiting ground for new terrorists.
Bush's consistent response to this evident fact is a cheap piece of verbal footwork. As he put it in his Veterans Day speech, "Some have also argued that extremism has been strengthened by the actions in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001." In the blink of an eye, the unidentified "some" go from arguing that our presence in Iraq has "strengthened" extremism to claiming that our presence is the "cause" or "trigger" of extremism, after which they are neatly dispatched by reference to 9/11. Cheney goes directly to the conclusion, not bothering with any verbal sleight of hand. In his speech to the faithful at the American Enterprise Institute on November 20, he blustered, "Some have suggested that by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein we simply stirred up a hornet's nest. They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq on September 11th, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway."
Bush and the Vice remind one of a guy in the desert who keeps shooting himself in his injured foot. When told that the shooting is making things worse, he replies, "That can't be right. I sprained the ankle before I started shooting."
These are all tied together, mainly because they all hinge on the first, the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security. On this score, as on so many others, the first rule is that you can't believe anything the Bush gang says. In February 2004, Rumsfeld reported that there were 210,000 Iraqis in the security forces, and in Bush's Naval Academy speech last November, the number had increased to 212,000. The first claim was clearly inflated, at least in terms of numbers of effective units, so what are we to make of the current claim? There is widespread agreement that Iraqi forces are still ineffective, and even the administration, while citing progress, admits they aren't effective enough.
It is plain---indeed, it was plain at the time---that the Bush gang was lying about the status of Iraqi forces during the 2004 election year. The Republicans are now gearing up for this year's congressional elections. What little candor escaped the White House in late 2004 will now be a casualty of Karl Rove's efforts to keep the Congress in Republican hands. We can take as a given that the Bush gang will exaggerate the numbers and readiness of Iraqi security forces.
The Bush gang's lack of credibility does not explain, however, why the Iraqi security forces are still insufficient and ineffective. The first reason seems to be that the Bush gang wasn't serious about training Iraqi security forces till the summer of 2004, when they belatedly realized that this was a real job, not just something to spin in an election year. Still, even that doesn't explain why we haven't had more success in the past year and a half.
There must be some real obstacle to training and deploying forces. Here's my guess as to what that obstacle is. The Shia and the Kurds now have what they want: autonomous regions which they control with little interference from the central government, in which they get all the oil revenues, and in which security is provided by their private militias and the state security forces, which are merging and becoming indistinguishable. The Sunnis have not accepted this arrangement, partly because it means a major diminution of their historic power in the country and partly because they will be left with no access to oil revenues. The result is the insurgency.
The main security problems now are in the areas where the Sunni insurgency operates, that is, in the Sunni triangle and in the Baghdad area. What is needed are units to police and secure these areas. The Shia and Kurds, who are in control of the Iraqi government, have no interest in training Sunni units to provide security in these areas, because these units leak resources into the insurgency and could easily become the nucleus of a Sunni-led army in a post-occupation civil war. The alternative to Sunni units is to let Shiite and Kurdish units provide security in the Sunni areas. The unworkability of this arrangement is confirmed by recent experience, as such units have already been guilty of serious abuses in Sunni areas.
The best we can hope for is that enough Sunnis accept the de facto partitioning of the country into three ethnic and religious autonomous regions, with the Baghdad area as a federal district shared by all three groups and controlled by a weak central government. For this to work, the Shia and the Kurds must allow the Sunnis to police their own region, by training their own state security forces and converting some of their insurgents into private militias like those the Shia and the Kurds already have.
Presently our troops are in charge of containing the insurgency. Although they are not completely effective, they are effective enough to permit the Shia and the Kurds to avoid facing up to the hard question of how to deal with the Sunni region after we leave. Our presence fuels the insurgency, which our troops fight to contain, while the Shia and the Kurds have what they want in their own autonomous regions. This is a recipe for being in Iraq forever.
The smartest move we could make would be to tell the three parties that we are beginning a systematic withdrawal, so they had all better sober up and think hard about making permanent arrangements for a post-occupation country. There's no guarantee this would work. There are truly bad people in all three groups. The outcome might be civil war. But we're not going to wipe out all the bad guys, and it is hard to see how an open-ended commitment of American troops increases the odds of a favorable outcome.
This is the cruelest of Bush's deceptions about Iraq. There is no prospect of complete victory in Iraq, even under the most optimistic scenarios, and there is certainly no prospect for a conclusion anything like the unconditional surrender of Japan that ended World War II. It is wildly irresponsible to lure the country further down the road of commitment to Iraq by promising that complete victory lies at the end. Such talk is a stratagem to avoid providing a realistic assessment of our position. It is a way to avoid setting sensible goals and estimating realistic costs in terms of life and treasure, in short, to avoid accountability.
Bush's National Strategy for Victory in Iraq states in bold type, "No war has ever been won on a timetable, and neither will this one." In his December 18 address to the nation from the Oval Office, Bush declared, "I will make decisions on troop levels based on the progress we see on the ground and the advice of our military leaders, not based on artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington."
This has it exactly backwards. In a democracy, wars are run by the political leadership, which formulates objectives and policies and, in consultation with the military, develops plans for achieving the objectives. The plans are implemented by the entire military apparatus, from the commanders down to the troops in the field. For a democracy to win a war, the political leaders must explain their objectives and plans to the people, to whom they are ultimately responsible. In an elective war like Iraq, it is particularly incumbent on the political leadership to spell out its objectives and plans clearly and to provide an idea of the timetable and costs for achieving the objectives. Even in World War II, which was a fight to the finish in which our explicit goal was the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, the President reported regularly to the people on the progress of the war effort and on the general direction of our plans, without, of course, giving away details that would benefit the enemy.
The prominent features of the Bush gang's Iraq adventure are (i) a shifting set of objectives, (ii) an inexcusable failure to plan for the occupation, with resulting disastrous consequences for the entire mission, and (iii) a consistent avoidance of accountability. It is inconceivable that we should now hand these bumblers a further blank check to proceed to an ill defined "complete victory." We need to know how long it's going to take and what it's going to cost in lives and treasure.
This must be the year of accountability for the Bush administration and its Iraq policies. There are many past actions and blunders for which the Bush gang should be held accountable: the manipulation of pre-war intelligence, the lack of planning for the occupation, the shifting justifications for the whole adventure, the emergence of Iraq as an important center of global terror, the failure to start training Iraqi security forces till mid-2004, the inability to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and to reconstruct its economy. These should rightly be a part of the 2006 congressional campaign, as a way of demonstrating the administration's deception and general incompetence on Iraq. The emphasis, however, should be on holding the Bush gang responsible for what it has now laid out in its strategy for victory in Iraq. Inadequate and imperfect though the strategy is as an actual plan for the Iraq mission, it is the most specific thing we've ever seen from the Bush gang, and they should be held to it.
To do this, the Democrats in Congress have to awake from their torpor. They should introduce legislation to require the Bush administration to provide quarterly reports to the Congress and the people, both written reports and testimony from senior administration officials. These reports should detail the objectives and plans for the Iraq mission, give estimates of the cost in terms of lives and treasure, provide rough timetables for achieving the objectives, and most important, furnish a clear statement of where the mission is expected to be at the time of the next report three months hence. The Democrats should demand that by the time of the mid-year report this year, the administration must be able to outline a clear path to the end of the Iraq occupation. Since the Republicans will block such legislation if it holds the administration to any meaningful accountability, the Democrats should hold their own mock hearings at each reporting period, to remind the American people that the Bush gang, abetted by its Republican allies in Congress, refuses to provide information and answer questions about the Iraq mission. The October mock hearings should be a focus of the 2006 congressional campaign.
The country is ready at last to hear sustained criticism of Bush and the Republicans on Iraq. Even Bush's blitz of speeches only managed to recover the wavering part of his base. A clear majority of Americans remain dissatisfied. A relentless focus on the Bush gang's failures in Iraq and its refusal to be held accountable is the best way to crystallize this dissatisfaction into the revulsion necessary to sweep away the current Republican majorities in Congress. Then we can really start to hold Bush's feet to the fire.
Addendum: 2006 February 3
Bush's State of the Union message was the next next-to-nothing, and sure enough, the media is falling all over itself analyzing every subtle change in wording and emphasis. The only surprise was Bush's admission that America is addicted to oil. If your gut reaction was, "That's just for show, like his New Orleans promise to confront poverty and racism with bold action," you were right, as comments from Energy Secretary Bodman have already shown.
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